We chat to some of the big winners at last night’s Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, Darleen Bungey, Claire Zorn and Ross Coulthart, about the writing life and their favourite books of 2015.
How do you get started writing each morning?
Darleen Bungey (winner of the Best Non-Fiction award for John Olsen: An Artist’s Life):
Getting started means going straight to the desk – whether it’s 4am when I can’t get the subject out of my head, or a more reasonable hour.
Claire Zorn (winner of the Young Adult Fiction award for The Protected):
I treat writing like I would any other job, it doesn’t matter if I don’t feel like doing it, it still has to be done.
Ross Coulthart (winner of the Australian History award for Charles Bean):
Before you go to bed each night, read through the next bit of writing that has you stumped.
I find my subconscious works on it while I’m sleeping, and I have the answer in the morning. I write it all down as soon as I wake.
Your best tip for beating writer’s block?
Darleen Bungey: Overcoming writer’s block is to stay sitting in front of the screen.
Claire Zorn: I build a playlist for every story I write. I listen to it when I get stuck and it’s helps my brain focus and stop over-thinking.
Ross Coulthart: Go for a long walk or swim. Do anything except sit in front of your desk. Stay away from actually writing as much as possible.
Where do you find inspiration?
Claire Zorn: All my books spring from song lyrics. I also watch a lot of documentaries about all sorts of different people.
Darleen Bungey: Inspiration is found by reading wonderful books.
Ross Coulthart: Read, read, read. Explore your subject. Don’t start writing until you’ve mastered the material. Delve into libraries/museums and explore the subject matter. Ramble through archives. Always go the distance and get out to interview people with information. Make it fun, not a grind. Don’t go into it with preconceived ideas.
Which was your favourite book of 2015?
Ross Coulthart: I’m absolutely hooked on all of Sunday Times journalist Ben McIntyre’s WW2 histories (Agent Zig-Zag, Double Cross & Operation Mincemeat) but his 2014 investigation of the Cambridge Six British MI6 traitors who spied for Russia – A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal – is magnificent. I’d never been able to explain how British intelligence could not have detected Philby, Maclean, Burgess and Blunt but he explains how their social class and connections gave them the benefit of the doubt with the establishment for far too long.
I’ve barely had time this year to read anything outside of history and the day job but I have Robert Harris’ latest book Dictator – a reprise of his wonderful portrayal of Cicero. Harris is an ex-investigative journalist who makes a decent living out of his beautifully written historical thrillers so he’s my pin-up.
Claire Zorn: The Heart Goes Last, by the incomparable Margaret Atwood. It’s troubling and yet hilarious – the best combination in any story.
Darleen Bungey: The two books of 2015 that will remain in my mind were This House of Grief by Helen Garner, and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. Both works deal with grief borne of untimely and unexpected death.
Garner takes us into a courtroom where the possible crime of a father’s infanticide is being tried. She deals with the horror by bearing witness, by questioning and never looking away, even when investigating and holding her gaze demands a nightmarish effort. Garner delivers solace by dredging from a lake of tears some sense of terrible understanding, some sort of wretched truth.
Macdonald hunts down bereavement with a bird of prey. Her father, a photographer, suffers a fatal heart attack. His final photograph, tragically snapped as he fell onto a London street, was askew. In turn his daughter’s world begins spinning out of kilter. As Macdonald explores memories of her father, her childhood passion with falconry and the writings on this subject by author, T.H. White, she retreats into a solitude shared with a goshawk. By patiently gaining the trust of this predator Macdonald forges an intimate connection to the wild world. As the bird flies and kills, she watches beauty soar and death swoop. With this acceptance of the natural cycle comes comfort and release.
About the Contributor
Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.
Follow Andrew: Twitter